Friday, November 29, 2013

Dishes from Qatar celebrated at Nour Festival culinary evenings

Anissa Helou and Aisha Al-Tamimi in the Books for Cooks kitchen

report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

Compared to the cuisines of many other countries in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, the cuisine of Qatar is one of the least known internationally. Londoners had a rare and welcome chance to watch Qatari food being prepared, and to eat the delicious and colourful results, at two  Dishes from Qatar evenings held last on Tuesday and Wednesday last week at the  famous Notting Hill bookshop Books for Cooks. I was invited along to the Tuesday event.

The evenings featured Aisha Al-Tamimi, a leading Qatari cook, accompanied by a team from the Food Forum of the National Museum of Qatar. Aisha was partnered in her cookery demonstration by the well-known Lebanese-Syrian cook, food writer and consultant Anissa Helou. Aisha is the author of several books, which were display at the evening. Anissa's latest book is Levant: Recipes and Memories from the Middle East (Harper Collins, 2013).

books by Qatari cook Aisha Al-Tamimi

Anissa and Aisha are lively characters with keen senses of humour, and their rapport with each other and with the audience enhanced an informative and entertaining evening.

The Dishes from Qatar evenings were part of the Nour Festival of Arts from the Middle East and North Africa, running in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea from 1 October to 30 November.

The evening was also part of  Qatar UK 2013 - a year-long programme of events to celebrate and develop the partnership between Qatar and the UK. The programme aims "to increase engagement between the people of both countries in the spirit of innovation, openness and learning." Qatar Museums Authority and the British Council are co-ordinating the programme of activities in both countries, in association with several other partners.  On the second Dishes from Qatar evening the guests included the Qatari cultural attaché in London and his wife.

Aisha Al-Tamimi

Nadya al-Saleh, Senior Specialist for Programmes at the National Museum of Qatar, introduced the event. "Today, as we all know, food is a main aspect of our life: it brings us joy, and happiness, I think all of us love food," she said. "It is also a main, important and accessible way to understand the culture, and the identity, of any nation."

The new National Museum of Qatar, currently under construction, is scheduled to be opened at the end of 2015, 40 years after the original museum was opened. The new museum is being built around the original museum, to architect Jean Nouvel's innovative design inspired by the desert rose. Nadya explained that despite its name, the desert rose is not a flower. Desert roses are rose-like groups of crystal found in desert regions.

 Anissa Helou

The new National Museum will explore the history and the identity of Qatar and of its people. "One of its important features is a 70-seat auditorium for the Food Forum and kitchen demos. And we will also have the food culture programmes" Nadya said. "Tonight we are very happy to present the two special ladies: Anissa Helou - our National Museum of Qatar food consultant - and our famous Qatari chef Aisha al-Tamimi."

Nadya made various contributions to the discussions of Anissa and Aisha with the audience during the cookery demonstration, talking for example about the food culture around Ramadan, and about Qatar National Day held annually on 18 December. Ramadan foods include the traditional harees, a kind of porridge made of cracked wheat cooked with meat or chicken and then given a lengthy beating.

Nadya al-Saleh, Senior Specialist for Programmes at the National Museum of Qatar

Coffee plays a central role in Qatari hospitality and guests at Dishes from Qatar were greeted with dates and small cups of fragrant Qatari coffee. They were given recipe sheets for the coffee and dishes prepared during the evening, as well as canvas tote goodie bags decorated with the UK Qatar UK 2013 logo. The bags contained fridge magnets and a hard-backed notebook with the logo, and a decorative little dallah made from golden wire and containing a sachet of coffee and spice mix with instructions on how to use it.

Holding a splendid traditional dallah, Aisha demonstrated how Qatari coffee is made and served. She placed a kind of brush in the spout of the dallah to strain ensure the poured brew from coffee grounds and spices. Some Qataris still use the traditional dallah, but nowadays thermos flasks are used to keep the coffee hot for hours.

 Aisha Al-Tamimi with traditional dallah coffee pot

Aisha made the coffee by boiling a lightly roasted coffee for around 10 minutes with saffron, cardamom, a spice mixture - including mastic, cloves and other spices - plus a little powdered milk to lighten the brew. The addition of powdered milk is not traditional, but Aisha said it is now the way most people in Qatar, and many people in Saudi Arabia, prepare coffee. She explained how a visitor's little cup of coffee will be refilled repeatedly until the visitor shakes the cup from side to side to indicate "enough".  

Nadya al-Saleh serves coffee the modern way - from a thermos flask

Aisha then moved on to prepare the main dish of the evening - marguga. Anissa noted that every Middle Eastern has a dish made with bread - for example the fatteh of Lebanon and some other countries. Marguga is Qatari savoury bread dish. It involves making a salona, "a cross between a soup and a stew, a kind of broth with vegetables and meat, flavoured in different ways." The broken up bread is added to the pot towards the end of cooking.

Marguga derives its name from the very thin flat bread that is its vital ingredient. Another popular bread dish, particularly in Ramadan, is tharid - said to have been the favourite dish of the Prophet Mohammad.

Anissa described marguga as "basically like an Arabic pasta dish except that the difference between the Arabian version and the Italian version is that marguga is not al dente at all, it has to melt." Aisha added that marguga is far more spiced than an Italian pasta dish. 

The recipe sheet for marguga included the recipe for bread made from a simple flour, water and salt dough "kneaded for half an hour" and then rolled very thin and cut into strips and added to the marguga.  For her demonstration Aisha used already baked flat Iranian bread.  

In her marguga Aisha used skinned organic chicken cut into pieces which she dry roasted rather than boiled it before using it to make the dish. The list of ingredients for marguga covered a page and a half of the recipe sheets. Alongside onion, garlic and tomatoes were vegetables including courgettes, potatoes, carrots, aubergine, pumpkin and green pepper. There was a battery of spices and herbs: star anise, cloves, curry leaves, fresh ginger, green chilli, fresh coriander, parsley and dill, ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, fennel, paprika, cinnamon, cardamom, cinnamon stick, dried red chilli flakes. An essential ingredient of Gulf cookery, pierced dried black lime, was also included. 

 Aisha shows some of the ingredients for marguga.

There was particular interest from the guests in the b'zar - described by Anissa as "a wonderful spice mixture" - of which a tablespoon was added to the marguga. Aisha's b'zar incorporated 29 spices. Each family tends to have its own recipe for b'zar. Anissa said two of Aisha's sisters are in charge of making and distributing the b'zar for Aisha's entire extended family.  Aisha and Anissa contrasted the use of spices in Lebanese and Qatari cuisine. In Lebanon food is mainly spiced with black pepper, cinnamon and allspice. But in Qatar "we must put in red chilli, cumin, coriander, fennel etc... like Indian food," Aisha said. 

While Aisha prepared and cooked the food she told the guests how she got married at 15 and was told by her husband after the honeymoon that she should herself learn to cook rather than employing a cook. From an older sister she learned how to prepare mashbuss, white rice, salona and other Qatari staples. She continued to learn from her sisters, friends, books, magazines, with results that were received enthusiastically by her husband. She widened her culinary repertoire when she went to the US where he did his master's degree, and then to Wales, where he did his PhD. During this time she did various cookery courses, including one in cake decoration.

Aisha with plates of mini regag of various flavours

As her starter at Dishes from Qatar Aisha made mini regag, small flavoured discs of thin crispy bread.  Her secret weapon in making the mini regag was an electric chapati maker. She placed teaspoons of bread batter on the plate, spaced to allow for spreading, and then lowered the lid for a short time.  She lifted the lid to reveal the magical transformation of the batter into regag. "I love these little crackers: there is a commercial venture possibility here!" said Anissa. 

Aisha showed plates of mini regag that she had made earlier and said "they are nice to serve when visitors come - nice tasting, and small." Four different flavours were used in making the  mini regag:  saffron and rose water; ketchup; crushed flaked almonds and ground fennel; and poppy and sesame seeds with a pinch of cayenne pepper and fine sea salt.

During the first course of the dinner that followed the demonstration, the mini regag were served with a yoghurt dip including cucumber, walnuts, barberries and fresh mint. The flavoursome regag had a unique crunchy wafery texture which complemented the dip beautifully.

marguga is served

The margug was bursting with colours and flavour. It was certainly a plus visually and taste-wise that many of the vegetables were cut in generous-sized chunks rather than cut small. The bread had been transformed to a softness, adding to the "comfort food" nature of the dish.

The sweet dish of the evening was balalit, made with cut vermicelli, turmeric, ghee, cardamom powder, sugar, water, rose water and eggs. The vermicelli is boiled with turmeric and cardamom and then drained and mixed with sugar, rose water and saffron. The desert is then baked uncovered in a low oven uncovered to dry the noodles. Finally it is topped with an omelette, made with black pepper and coriander. Some Qataris prefer to scramble the eggs. Balilit is similar to certain Indian vermicelli sweets topped with an omelette.

"This is a typical breakfast in Qatar, and it's really delicious" Anissa said. Aisha said she makes it when people visit in the mornings, between breakfast and lunch. She recalled how neighbours used to gather in their houses every day and would eat sweets such as balalit, khabees and aseeda. Balalit is also served as a sweet after lunch and in the evenings. 

Aisha prepared her balalit the traditional way, adding the dried vermicelli to boiling water. Nowadays the vermicelli is sometimes fried before boiling to make a richer, deeper-coloured dish.  

Aisha carries the balalit to the table

Aisha and Anissa pose for pictures while guests tuck into the Qatari feast
for further information on Qatari food activities follow @eatqatar on Instagram 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

'Songs of Exile' Vox Holloway concert for Syrian refugees includes premiere of Cry Palestine

All proceeds to benefit Hand in Hand for Syria

Sunday 1 December at 7.30 pm
St Luke's Church Hillmarton Road
London N7 9RE

Tube: Caledonian Road Buses: 17, 91, 259, 29, 253

VOX HOLLOWAY in association with
St Luke's Church, West Holloway


A concert in aid of Syrian refugees
featuring the World Premiere of

by Reem Kelani, Harvey Brough and Justin Butcher


songs of Spanish Exile
written and performed by Clara Sanabras

with the Elysian Quartet and the 70 Voice Community Choir, Vox Holloway

Tickets £12 Concessions £5 BOOKING INFORMATION 07970 785641 VOXHOLLOWAYN7@GMAIL.COM

for further information read:
Vox Holloway raise their voices for Syrian refugees.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Banipal Book Club brings Arab short story telling to London's Nour Festival

Following the success of the first-ever Banipal Book Club Short Story Circles held in November 2012 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Book Club organised a second session of Story Circles last week at Kensington Central Library.

Like last year's event at the V and A, the well-attended  Short Stories from the Arab World was part of the Nour Festival of contemporary art, film, literature, music and performance from the Middle East and North Africa. The Festival is being held in venues throughout the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea from 1 October to 30 November.

Celia Shenouda (L) and Charis Bredin

The three stories translated from Arabic which were read and discussed during the evening are downloadable from the Banipal magazine website. They are Mordechai's Moustache and his Wife's Cats by Palestinian author Mahmoud Shukair translated by Issa J Boullata; Black Kohl . . . White Heart by Kuwaiti writer Mona al-Shammari, translated by Sophia Vasalou; and Ali the Red by Luay Hamza Abbas of Iraq, translated by Maia Tabet.

Members of the audience were given copies of the two issues of Banipal and the Banipal Books volume in which the stories appeared. And they were kept well supplied with drinks and delicious Arab snacks in the breaks between stories. The discussions that followed each story were lively, the diverse audience contributing rich perspectives.

The event was chaired by Margaret Obank, publisher, cofounder and former editor of Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature. The stories were read by stalwarts of the Banipal Book Club, which was founded last year and meets monthly in the meeting room of the Banipal Arab British Centre Library of Modern Arab Literature (BALMAL) located at the Arab British Centre. Charis Bredin read the first story, Mordechai's Moustache and his Wife's Cats. Shukair is well known for his  gifts of satire and humour under occupation. These qualities are much in evidence in the title story of the author's first collection in English translation, published by Banipal Books in 2007.

Mordechai, a former soldier, and his wife Stella are middle-aged Israelis of modest means who are on their own now their  grown-up children have left home. Stella devotes herself to her three cats while Mordechai grows his handlebar moustache. But Mordechai grows annoyed with the cats, and she in turn resents his moustache. Mordechai decides to volunteer for military service at checkpoints. Posted to the Qalandiya checkpoint he has  his first close encounters with Palestinians.

"Conflicting ideas and feelings overcame him. He was almost ready to express his sympathy for these unarmed human beings waiting for a hand gesture from him," Shukair writes. "However, the security of the state was greater than all other considerations and this made him suppress his tender feelings; for these people – in the final analysis – were the enemies of Israel!" Mordechai sees the young men as potential saboteurs, possibly armed with suicide belts or machine guns.

But he can't stop  himself admiring the Palestinian women. "He cast direct looks at the bodies of the young women crowding at the checkpoint. He said to himself: 'The Palestinians have beautiful girls!' And quickly compared them with the girls of Tel Aviv, thinking: 'But the girls in Tel Aviv are more beautiful.'" The story ends with Mordechai agreeing to shave off his moustache - which the Palestinians had made fun of - if his wife will get rid of her cats. Their negotiating this agreement raises questions of negotiation more generally.
Mahmoud Shukair
(L to R) Aurora Tellenbach, Margaret Obank, Celia Shenouda

There was dark humour in Mona al-Shammari's story Black Kohl . . . White Heart, read by Aurora Tellenbach. The story appears in Banipal 47, the magazine's current issue, which has a Special Feature on Fiction from Kuwait. A voluptuous young woman, Tiba, has travelled from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait to be married off to a Kuwait man. She is horrified to find her spouse is "an overweight and feeble-minded simpleton who didn’t talk like grown men did, who ate like a child, and slept like a brute." Living in the extended family she is observed by her husband's young niece, the first person narrator of the story, who is bewitched by her beauty. "Her lips are always glossed with jujube lipstick. They’re swollen like red cherries ripe for plucking. Her deep black eyes are like chestnuts; the black kohl makes them wider, and lends languor to her gaze. Her skin is the colour of milk mixed with honey." The child innocently sees how she plots an escape from the arranged marriage, and the story ends with an ingenious twist.

Mona al-Shammari

Ali the Red, read by Celia Shenouda, was published in Banipal 37, in a Special Feature on Iraqi Authors. It was the most gruesome of the three stories, shot through with various forms of violence, yet having flashes of humour. The first-person narrator was at school 20 years earlier with four boys named Ali for whom the sports master had devised monikers. Ali was Red not because of any political affiliation but because of his ruddy complexion. Now the narrator is summoned to the coroner's office to identify the corpse of Ali, whose "forehead and half of his face had been gouged by bullets." The vividly recounted story is set among workers, some toiling like Ali in a quarry, others in the harsh conditions of oilfelds where they might be buried in collapsing well-heads. An Iraqi woman in the audience found the story a reflection of the everyday brutal killings that Iraq has been suffering for years.
report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

Celia Shenouda reads Ali the Red